Premier League - Chelsea grind out win over 10-man Stoke
Roberto Di Matteo got his first Premier League win as Chelsea manager, as Didier Drogba's strike handed him a 1-0 victory over Stoke City at Stamford Bridge.
It was a less than enthralling clash, Chelsea fading somewhat in the second half despite being a man to the good, but the win was ultimately deserved as Stoke barely tested home keeper Petr Cech.
John Terry - starting after his miraculous recovery from a knee operation - headed against the woodwork, but he was nearly the villain of the piece after his slip let Jonathan Walters in.
Despite a somewhat eccentric team selection by Di Matteo that saw Mata, Daniel Sturridge, Fernando Torres and Michael Essien all benched, the home side somehow failed to take the lead in a first half that saw them hit the woodwork twice, force some good stops from Begovic and miss a couple of decent opportunities.
They were largely playing 10 men too - Fuller, preferred to Peter Crouch and Cameron Jerome, was shown a straight red card on 25 minutes for an idiotic stamp on the private parts of Branislav Ivanovic, an apparently unprovoked attack after the Serb had won the ball cleanly in a challenge the Jamaican appeared to have ridden.
Either side of that incident there were a host of chances, Ivanovic got in the thick of the action by putting a free header over early in the half, heading on to the roof of the net after a give-and-go with Frank Lampard, and volleying against the bar after a superb take on the chest.
Bosnia keeper Begovic made a fine save from Gary Cahill after the England defender went on one of his surging runs forward, unchecked by a strangely hesitant Stoke defence, while fine crosses by Raul Meireles, Salomon Kalou and Ivanovic were missed by Drogba (twice) and Ramires, who was starting as the more advanced of three central midfielders.
Di Matteo’s team selection appeared to back the old guard - Terry, Lampard and Ashley Cole all started - but it seemed strange to bench Mata given the Spaniard has been one of only a few positives for Chelsea this season.
The former West Brom manager did introduce the ex-Valencia playmaker though, choosing to withdraw Meireles soon after Fuller’s dismissal: however, taking off John Obi Mikel would have seemed a smarter move as the Nigerian was riding a tightrope having picked up an early booking.
There was another strange substitution as, at half-time, Di Matteo replaced Ivanovic - who was a constant threat as a rampaging right-back - with the error-prone David Luiz.
It had little impact though as the hosts slumped into a turgid second-half performance, barely making an impact on a very comfortable Stoke defence less troubled than when they had 11 men.
Indeed the first opportunity of note came on the hour mark as Terry came up from defence to drive a low shot just wide, his show of determination appearing to inspire his team-mates as they took the lead soon afterwards.
Drogba had just forced an excellent stop from Begovic with a trademark curling free-kick: Stoke managed to clear the corner but Mata carved out a fine through-ball that Drogba latched on to, holding off Dean Whitehead’s challenge, rounding Begovic and rolling home an easy finish.
For some reason Chelsea backed off in the aftermath of their goal, retreating somewhat and allowing Stoke to fashion their only chance of the half, again falling to Walters who rolled a low shot just wide with Cech’s view obscured by team-mates.
That was it for the Potters though as, sparked by that near miss, Chelsea regained their concentration and pressed for a second.
Cahill had another fizzing effort fly just wide, while Mata mimicked Drogba by hitting the bar with a brilliant free-kick.
Sturridge - whose introduction meant Torres, who is nine minutes short of 24 hours without a goal, did not feature - also put wide after a mazy run inside from the right, but Chelsea could to add to their tally, stopping one goal short of fourth-placed Arsenal, who have a game in hand.